Scrolling through Instagram in bed a few months ago, I saw a picture of my friend Anthony*. Before my brain processed who I was looking at, I felt a shock up and down my spine. Anthony has been dead for almost six years. For a moment, he was alive again, posting on Instagram.
Though we met when we were 14 and remained friends through college and our 20s up until the day of his death at 27, I have very few photos of myself with Anthony. I have a small copy of his high school yearbook picture, which had similarly affected me when it slipped out of the pages of an old album into my lap late last year. On the back he wrote, “Dear Aimee, You’re special. Love, Bill Cosby.” We didn’t know then.
No one knows what’s in the future, but I remember that as a teenager I was in a rush to find out, and brimming with the sense that things were going to start really cooking any second. Adults are often nostalgic for this feeling, but I think it’s just because they want to shake off that burden of knowing. The older you get the more you know about how people’s stories unfold and, sometimes, where they abruptly end.
Anthony was the third friend from my graduating high school class to die before the age of thirty. At his memorial service, someone whispered to me, “I wonder if we’re cursed?”
The first death happened when we were only 18, most of us in college. After getting in some sort of argument with someone on the street, John* was shot in the back. I’d met John in junior high, and we’d had a petty argument as freshmen then never made up, though our social circles continued to overlap. I found out about his death on the day of the memorial, and spent the afternoon crying in my boyfriend’s bed, wracked with guilt, unable to make myself attend.
At 24, Anna* was hit by a car on First Avenue while riding her bike. We’d also been friends since junior high, migrating to the same high school together and drifting apart soon after graduating. I’d seen her not too long before she died, though, at an outdoor party next to the East River. I’d held her hands as she squatted to pee in a corner of the abandoned parking lot we were drinking in, both of us giggling insanely as we fell back easily into our teen antics. The night before I found out she was dead, I had a dream that I was at her farewell party, singing her a song from a spotlit stage.
At the time, I was working on a farm in upstate New York, and my best friend called to tell me. I’ve experienced a lot of death, not just people from high school, and the tone of her voice told me somebody was gone. For a minute, my mind raced through the possibilities of who it could be, and when I first heard the news, I had very little reaction, briefly relieved it wasn’t someone else, someone closer to me. Soon after, that initial numbness wore off, and I crawled inside my tent to weep, unsettling the chickens with my wails.
We’re not the purest versions of ourselves as teenagers, or children. The people I knew when I was 13 don’t know the “real me” any more than friends I met this year. But there is an understanding that can only be reached through bearing witness to the trials of time. Watching that small seed of the soul grow, deepen, blossom—or not. Even when I don’t talk to my high school friends, I know that they know how I have grieved, how we have been marked by this ritual of loss, and how hard it is to explain the cumulative effect of it all.
As Anthony’s body was lowered into a burial plot, a man I hadn’t seen since 12th grade clutched my shoulder. I reached back and grasped his hand. In the circle around his coffin were people I’d mostly only known as kids, now all in their dark formal wear, faces etched with sorrow and age. Here we were, at the end of Anthony’s life, and there was an unbearable intimacy to it, especially because he wasn’t there. It feels like an insane intrusion of privacy to know about someone’s death, when they really can’t.
Not long before he died, I spoke to Anthony on the phone while on the upswing of a manic episode. I remember enthusiastically telling him, “Something’s coming, things are changing, I can feel it!” while standing on Atlantic Avenue. It was a beautiful day, and whether it was a reaction to fine weather or a brain bath of spiking serotonin levels, I don’t know, but I was brimming with a sense of possibility.
“Okay, Aimée,” he said, his voice resigned, or like he didn’t want to tell me I was wrong. I want to add here something more about him—how he was thoughtful, sensitive. How when he played music he always smiled to himself in a way that was both proud and touchingly shy. On the phone that day, he sounded like an adult talking to a child, but it was true. Things were changing. We just didn’t know how much.
There is very little to say that’s comforting about young people dying for no reason, especially young people you’ve loved. But I will say that the lives you see end, a person you hold in the past, will find a way to break through into the present. Like bubbles rising to the surface, their energy can’t be contained: a photo, a note in the margins of a book, a hint of how they moved in a stranger on the subway platform, a shared joke you can’t explain to anyone else, even the pain of remembered loss brings them back to you.
About a year after Anthony’s death, I was standing outside a building waiting for a dance rehearsal to start. I realized it was his old office building, and looking at the doorway I saw a sticker on the wall with his name written on it. Shocked, I read the words below.
“I loved a man and he died.”
Every year, I move slower, but just the same, every year I leave Anthony and all the other people who never got to grow up farther behind. You can’t tell a teenager anything, but if I could, I would tell my teenage self to learn to be in the present sooner, to stop looking ahead with such fierce expectation. There’s no need to rush. It’s not in the wild rapids, but in the calm stillness that the simplest truths emerge: you love, you die, and one wouldn’t mean anything without the other.
*Names have been changed.